Graduate schools can drive you crazy

Why do arts graduate schools, in particular, bring out our vulnerabilities?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 2, 2007 11:56AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

It occurred to me today that I was a little harsh on myself yesterday, talking of my young creative writing graduate school self as an arrogant snot-nosed little shit.

If today I saw that young man I used to be, I hope I would just shake my head and say to myself, You'll learn, young man; life will catch up with you. (You snot-nosed little shit.)

Pardon me, past self. That was harsh.

I guess I'm just not through yet. Many of us in graduate schools around the country could probably use a moment or two of reflection.

Let's talk more about this.

Dear Cary,

Your recent column on the confused student in creative writing graduate school touched me because I am going through something similar. I am studying for an MFA in sound design at one of the best art schools in the country. I always believed I would be a professional pianist, but the bottom fell out of that dream a few months before I graduated from college. A trusted teacher and mentor lied to me about my admission status into her program, and I never recovered from the blow. Looking back on this crushing blow two years later, I can see that what I needed most was for my adolescent image of a piano virtuoso to be brought down to reality to show me for what I was: a talented musician who hates to practice. It quite simply wasn't what I loved to do.

I'm not sure that sound design is my passion, but my school is opening up the artistic side of myself while simultaneously forcing me to break down insecurities and creative blocks that I've hidden behind for years. My main speed bump at this point is my high self-expectations. It's not that I even fear failure or mediocrity; I fear falling short of expectations. As we approached our final projects last semester, it was leaked that I was accepted in the highest position with the most money in my class of sound designers (though a pool of four really doesn't serve for the best comparison). The fear that my fellow designers would upset my No. 1 spot was paralyzing.

I've since managed to work through it; during three years of therapy while I was an undergrad, I realized that my conscience (for lack of a better word) actually functions. In my case, it is like a compass pointing in the right direction; all I have to do is get still enough to settle the needle. Meditation has helped me achieve this mental stillness, but as I get stressed, I meditate less though I need it more.

In any case, the anxiety of wanting to be "the best" still nags at me even as I realize there is no clear measure of artistic talent. I really took comfort in your honest story of loss. It gives me hope as I keep moving forward, discovering my talents. Thank you!

Working a Sound Program

Dear Sound Program,

We creative types are never going to be completely pure in motive or completely free of self-doubt or completely anything. We're going to be evolving, processing, creating, taking in the world, transforming it, moving on. We're in motion. This motion can be exhausting. And it wears down the machinery. So we need tools for maintenance and repair.

Meditation is a great tool for maintenance. I like what you say: You have to get still enough for the needle to settle. Meditation is so important for artists! Not only do you have to get still enough for the needle to settle in the sense of settling on an overall future direction, but you have to settle the needle every day. Every day I get up and hope for still waters. If I stir the waters up too much early in the day, that's it for the day. I can't see a thing on the bottom. I have to wait for tomorrow for the waters to clear.

And then there's this other thing you mention: betrayal by a trusted mentor. Betrayal causes huge damage.

I've been carrying on a sporadic correspondence with someone about a big creative betrayal that involves a powerful American institution, and the more I think about it, the more I realize the great power betrayal can have over the creative spirit. Why is that? Are creatives more vulnerable to personal betrayal than the population at large? Why might that be? Is it because so much ego is invested in one's reputation as a creative type? Is it because we creatives are often immature? Do we lack self-protective behaviors, or insight into the motives of others? Are we naive? Are we codependent? Do we often misjudge others? And do we also, as creatives, carry our valuables like innocent travelers on dark roads, unaware of what others will do to get what we have?

We must look at ourselves with pitiless clarity. Like victims of con games, we must bear some of the blame. There is probably larceny in our hearts to begin with -- dreams of fame and greatness, an inflated sense of our own importance. We are easily led to believe that we'll win that jury prize. We think we deserve it. We start to act as though we've already won it. Then when it is snatched away, we collapse.

Why does it take so long, for instance, for a creative person to get over betrayal? What is it about betrayal that is so hard? I think it is probably in part that it is difficult for us to find our own flaws in it, what in our own nature leads us to participate in our own betrayal. Because ... for one thing, in order to pursue our creative work, we must at times idealize ourselves, our own work, we must believe it is important because otherwise, why would we do it, and of course also the external rewards are minimal, so we compensate ... with dreams of greatness.

And oh, in your case, you mention your vulnerability to unmet expectations. You feel terrible about not meeting expectations, but the betrayal was about your own expectations. So what are expectations? They are dreams. They are not the present. We are not in the present when we are full of expectations. We build them in the future and then pose them as obstacles in the present.

This column is going to be, in a sense, incomplete, as I feel we have only touched the surface of this topic.

I want to finish this column and publish it today with these inchoate thoughts (I'm evolving, I'm transforming, I'm on deadline!), so that we can take this up further in the days ahead. If you are a creative person who has experienced damaging betrayal, I would be interested to hear what happened, and how you got over it. I think together we may find a way out of this, if we can face the truth about how we ourselves make ourselves vulnerable.

As we need tools for maintenance, we also need tools for repair. So how do we repair the damage done by betrayal?

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